If you think Italy can be constrained to the “golden triangle” created by Venice, Florence, and Rome, think again. From its northernmost border regions that are practically Austrian to the deep south, landscape, architecture, and tradition change drastically, offering the experienced visitor enough variety to keep traveling in Italy for a lifetime.
Here are ten places in Italy that are truly “off the beaten track.”
Friuli: Pordenone and San Daniele
The Friuli region borders with Austria to its north and Slovenia to the East. Its full name is Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and it’s an autonomous region with special statute that recognizes its unique history and geography. This unforgiving mountainous terrain alternates with plains, is criss-crossed with rivers, and was dominated for most of the early modern period by Austria, which left a distinctly foreign and well-organized imprint on the area. Throughout the Renaissance, while central Italy and Venice developed that consistent artistic style known for perspective and harmony, the isolated nature of many northern Friuli towns meant that a more medieval style with local characteristics dominated.
Probably the most famous artist from this area is Giovanni Antonio Pordenone, whose last name refers to the town of his birth. Follow in his footsteps to see his canvases and frescoes in the cathedrals of Pordenone, nearby Spilimbergo, and San Daniele.
The historic center of Pordenone is extremely pleasant, its main shopping street flanked by covered archways and populated with well-dressed citizens who frequent warm cafés serving heavy local specialties like the saleti, a cookie made with polenta flour. Step out from under the covered spaces, though, because otherwise you’ll miss one of the town’s most unusual features: painted house facades that are some of the best-preserved examples of a forgotten Italian tradition.
Head north on the highway (an easy day trip if you’re staying near Pordenone) to San Daniele del Friuli, as far into the mountains as you’d want to go. The name is synonymous with Prosciutto di San Daniele, considered the country’s best cured ham. In June the “Aria di Festa” sagra transforms the town into a tasting center, but at any time of year you can arrange visits to local artisanal producers who will offer samples.
This is a town in which food is taken seriously. It’s the headquarters of the EFSA (the European food safety agency), the home of Prosciutto di Parma, and the origin of Parmigiano Reggiano whose name echoes the region of Reggio Emilia in which this rich town is located. Interestingly it’s also the head office of the infamous Parmalat, and of RIS, the Italian CSI. Parma is easy to reach by train on the Bologna-Milan line and the historic center is walkable.
One undeniably comes here to eat: other than the foods with Parma in their name, the tortelli (filled pasta) are excellent. The consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano offers a daily group tour of producers (20 days’ advance reservation required) that is worth taking.
But Parma also has an important artistic heritage. Set aside time between meals to explore the historic center with many churches and beautiful palazzi. Don’t miss the Camera di San Paolo in the ex-monastery of the same name with Correggio frescoes (circa 1520) commissioned by the forward-thinking abbess Giovanna da Piacenza who chose the myth of Diana as subject matter rather than a sacred figure. Check out the Duomo as well (with Correggio frescoes in the main cupola), though the separate octagonal baptistery in the Romanesque style is perhaps more unusual (it’s particularly tall). The city also has a rich musical tradition – a good time to visit is October to catch an opera during the Festival Verdi.
On Italy’s Adriatic coast, Ravenna is known for its mosaics, the tradition of which thrived in the fifth and sixth centuries and still continues today. Eight of its buildings have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List so it’s not exactly “unknown”, but rarely is Ravenna included in regular tourists’ itineraries (it is, however, a big pilgrimage destination).
Ravenna was the stronghold of Byzantine rule in Italy under the emperor Justinian (527-65); the architecture and decoration of Ravenna’s churches are thus of the Eastern type, modeled after Constantinople. The most important church is San Vitale – the apse mosaics that show Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora and their attendants are reproduced in most art history survey textbooks. San Vitale is a centrally-planned church, very different from the basilican tradition of western Christianity that we see in Ravenna’s other famous churches (such as Sant’ Apollinare in Classe and Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo) and in fact different from anything else you’ll see in Italy.
The fourth-century Neonian Baptistery is also decorated with mosaics and it sparked a collective vision in the 1930s: the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung and his traveling companion discussed and distinctly recalled a blue-toned mosaic of Peter sinking that they later realized didn’t actually exist. The strong emotions that connect present, real events and past or subconscious images can be yours, too, with a visit to this magical city of colors enclosed in little glass tesserae.
Urbino is not easy to get to. There is no train station, few buses, and it’s served by a small mountain road. If you think it’s isolated now, you ought to have seen it in the fifteenth century, which is why it’s all the more remarkable that an important Renaissance court was established here. Under Federico da Montefeltro, an important mercenary soldier with a particular love for books, this court was the model of perfection on which Baldassare Castiglione based his The Courtier, a kind of how-to book of social niceties for upper-class men and women of the time.
The Palazzo Ducale that was the seat of this court can now be visited, and is in fact the main reason to come to this town. It looms above the visitor parking lot, built into the side of the mountain, but despite seeming fortified from this angle, its façade embraces a wide piazza in the center of town. The Palazzo is now the National Gallery of Urbino and the Marches (the region in which it’s located) and it houses some real jewels of Renaissance art. Don’t miss the paintings by Piero della Francesca, Raphael, and Paolo Uccello. But the real treat is the building itself that allows you to imagine yourself transported back 600 years. Note the Renaissance courtyard and well, the wood-intarsiated doors and sculpted fireplaces, the tiny “studiolo” and the private chapel.
If you arrive at Urbino early enough in the morning, you can have lunch here and move on to your next stop (it’s hardly known for nightlife). Lunch ought to consist of a crescione (or cresce), a flaky wrap served with your choice of filling (though traditionally with stracchino, a soft cheese).
Grotte di Frasassi
Underground in the Marche region is the Frasassi caves, which are the closest you can get to being on another planet while still being on Earth. For safety reasons, “regular” tourists are accompanied on group visits that take 70 minutes and include a 1.5 kilometer walk on easy terrain. More adventurous types can pre-book a two- or three-hour trail – equipment and guide provided. The temperature in the grotto is 14 degrees Celsius year-round, making it a “cool” place in the summer (pack a sweater!).
The guides are well-informed and tell stories about key areas in the grotto – each dramatically-lit “room” has individual characteristics that piqued the imaginations of the speleologists who discovered them. See stalactites and stalagmites of impressive height and width and unusual shapes, like the so-called “organ pipes”, or the “Sword of Damocles” which is a 7.4 meter-high stalactite. Wonder at the largest underground room in the world, the “Abyss” of 2 million cubic meters – it’s hard to grasp just how huge this is without something recognizable in there for scale. (Check out a video here.)
Consider a hike or at least a picnic in the 9000 hectare regional park in which the grottoes are located. Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot to see in the immediate vicinity, though on your way out you might stop at the seldom-visited Benedictine Abbey of San Vittore; there’s also a museum of archaeology and paleontology if you haven’t had enough geographic oddities for the day. From here, explore some of the Marchegian hilltowns – Jesi, Cingoli, or Recanati – or visit nearby Fabriano, the first place in Italy to produce paper on a large scale.
While most of this itinerary proposes specific towns, Maremma is an area of Tuscany and it’s all to be discovered. Isn’t Tuscany awfully well known, you say? Well, this is the one part that is mostly untouched by foreign tourism. Maremma is defined by Monte Amiata near Siena on the east, the Tyrranian sea on the west, and the North and South borders of Tuscany. With mountains, plains, and gorgeous beaches, the central part is primarily agricultural, dotted with hilltowns. When you drive here (for it’s not well served by public transportation), you get the impression that you’ve stepped back in time into what appears to be unadulterated nature.
Yet the Etruscans lived here, and left plenty of evidence. Follow any brown (tourist) sign you see for you may stumble upon a 2.5 millenia-old cumulus tomb in the middle of nowhere. The Romans took over most of the Etruscan settlements, so their remains are also prominent. There are ruins of medieval abbeys, but not much from then to the modern age as the land was swampy and unhealthy. Now its fertile earth turns forth rice, lavender, wheat, fruits and vegetables (which you can buy at roadside stands), and miles of sunflowers every summer in a parody of Tuscan-ness. Maremma also has many kilometers of natural reserves, the best of which is the Parco Nazionale della Maremma, known for bird-watching.
Pick any town to stay for a few nights in this area, be it swanky Castiglione della Pescaia on one of the best beaches or further south and inland like understated Manciano, not far from the thermal baths of Saturnia. Search out country trattorie (informal restaurants) for inexpensive, hearty food: fresh fish in the summer, and cinghiale (wild boar) in the winter.
Elba is the largest of seven islands in the Tuscan Archipelago. If you’re looking for crystalline waters and ridiculously beautiful cliff views, come here. Outdoor sports are unquestionably the main reason to visit Elba as it offers them all, from hiking (with some quite challenging trails) to boating of every kind. The beaches are marvelous, from the busy but well-equipped Fetovaia to the lesser known coves that I suggest you seek out (Elba Link provides a handy list of beaches). If after a day of outdoor activity you’re not too tired, hit up clubs in Capoliveri or Marina di Campo.
Even on a rainy day, Elba offers things to do in the form of visitable cultural monuments, many thanks to Napoleon’s ten-month exile here starting May 1814. The main sites are the two Napoleonic villas – the public residence at Villa dei Mulini and the more private space at Villa di San Martino. There is also a Medici Fortress at Portoferraio, some Roman ruins, and a mineral museum.
Elba is easy to reach – the ferry that transports both people and vehicles takes one hour from Piombino. Prices vary by date and car type; you can price it out and reserve online with either Moby or Toremar. If you have a rental car, bring it with you as it’s cheaper than renting on the island. Groceries are available at various supermarkets and small stores around Elba. To take advantage of water sports you’ll want to come in the summer months: mid May to the end of September are ideal. Prices are highest in August when almost all Italians holiday at the beach.
If you’re looking for a good place to stop between Tuscany and Southern Italy, Viterbo is an option. A bit of a lazy town with an abundance of fountains, it was much more important in the late middle ages when it was a papal city (the popes lived here in the second half of the thirteenth century). Thomas Aquinas preached here from the outdoor pulpit of Santa Maria Nuova. The Duomo is a mish-mash of styles since it took over 400 years to build and then was bombed to smithereens in the second world war, but the original Cosmatesque (inlaid marble) floor makes it worth stopping in. Next to the Duomo, do visit the Palazzo dei Papi (open daily except Monday) with its graceful and unique one-sided loggia that is one of the symbols of the city.
The area around Viterbo, known as Etruria, has a fair amount to offer. It shares a history and a number of characteristics with its neighbor, the Maremma. There are Etruscan tombs (the most important of which are at Tarquinia), thermal baths, and pleasure gardens (the best may be the capricious late-Renaissance one at Villa Farnese at Caprarola). A fine area to visit any time of the year, but perhaps most pleasant in Spring when the air is still cool on your head as you take in the sulphuric waters enjoyed by numerous Popes and by Dante himself.
Italians are known as particularly resourceful people, especially when it comes to tax evasion. So if they create a tax on roofs, the Italian will come up with a dismountable roof for when the tax collector comes by. Thus – according to legend – was born the trullo (plural trulli), an unusual form of architecture typical of the Valle d’Itria area of Puglia. These small round huts with very thick walls and few openings feature roofs of easily removable bricks stacked in a cone shape. Being extremely small, trulli are often grouped together to create one central and multiple dependent spaces. They have now become fashionable and very expensive to buy. Plan to stay at least one night in luxurious trullo hotel for a “truly” unique experience.
Alberobello, a UNESCO Heritage site, is an entire hill-town built of trulli. If you’re not staying in one, this is your chance to go inside one: the town has many tourist shops selling local wines or taralli (round crunchy things that are either a sweet cookie or a salty cracker depending on the type). A late-evening visit is particularly magical as the trulli’s white walls and greyish roofs marked with mysterious symbols light up under the pink sky of sunset. Have dinner here or drive half an hour to Martina Franca, a pleasant late Baroque town excellent for people-watching. Try the local specialties: orecchiete pasta with any topping for a primo, and sausages or lamb fegatini (liver) for secondo.
In the region of Basilicata, bordering on Puglia, Matera’s most notable feature is its prehistoric cave dwellings in which people were still living not long ago, until they were declared unsafe in 1952. It looks so perfectly ancient that the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of Christ” was shot here. In 1993 it was the first southern Italian location to make the the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The “Sassi di Matera” is an entire ancient city carved out of the local calcareous “tufa” rock. Some of the cave dwellings can be visited for a small fee so you can see what it must have been like to be a southern-Italian peasant in the first half of the 20th century. The habitations had no windows and often both people and their farm animals lived in a single room, but they had an intricate hydraulic system that provided cold running water! There are also many cave churches to visit, some with Byzantine frescoes in various states of preservation. Guided tours are available of the caves in the nearby park (Parco delle Chiese Rupestri del Materano). In apparently strong contrast, Matera is also host to an excellent contemporary sculpture museum, MUSMA.
Matera doesn’t have a train station so you’ll have to reach it by car or bus. Once you get there, you can proceed mostly on foot. Given the prehistoric nature of the place, consider hiking or biking during your visit (tours are offered by the official site Sassi Web). Summers are very hot down here, so try to go during the off-season.